Dr. Scanlon - March 2010
Best Fish in the Bay
John M. Scanlon, M.D.
Crunchy golden morsels bobbed earnestly on bubbling peanut oil in the large deep-fat fryer. The kettle’s depths were carefully dredged, and fully cooked filets were ladled onto a platter lined with paper towels. The plate was promptly carried to the nearby picnic table. Although the fish chunks were too hot to devour immediately, in short order the assembled guests had emptied that platter and demanded more of these crispy, succulent treats.
The fish filets had been dredged through House-Autry seafood breader (a Southern staple for more than 150 years) prior to their brief swim in boiling oil. Their journey ended after they had turned light brown and floated on the tempestuous oleo ocean.
Crabs steamed in beer and Old Bay seasoning, briefly grilled rockfish, fresh vine-ripened August tomatoes, sweet Silver Queen corn and vinegary potato salad rounded out this late-summer feast on the Shore. The beer was ice cold and a light white wine had been nicely chilled. But the premier culinary attraction was deep-fried fresh white perch filets from fish caught that morning.
We had launched the shallow-draft 20-foot center console boat near the Tred Avon River and before dawn motored to a rocky point we knew held perch. Several ultra-light rods with small spool spinning reels were readied. Each held 6 lb. test braided or monofilament line to cast 1/8 oz. lures toward the shore.
The lure plunked into the water about the same time. Each rod bent sharply as its line came taut on a strongly fighting fish. After a short tussle, plump white perch were unhooked and plopped on ice in the cooler.
This action continued almost non-stop until two dozen fish from 8 to 12 inches long had been coolered. Tackle and lures were then exchanged for more sturdy gear, and we cruised to a different location in search of rockfish. That evening’s already scheduled fish fry was now guaranteed.
The white perch (Morone americana) is a very underpublicized and underappreciated gamefish in the Chesapeake. Actually, it is not a perch at all. White perch belong to the same family as striped bass (Morone saxetilis), or rockfish as they are called around the Bay.
Perch are abundant in our area despite ever-increasing human population living around this beautiful waterway and adding to its pollution woes.
White perch are often the first saltwater fish youngsters catch in their early angling lives. A preferred and very effective method employs light tackle to fish with pieces of peeler crab or bloodworm on a small hook using a bottom rig.
White perch, also called gray or brown perch, are feisty, fight hard and bite readily. They are among the first saltwater fish to arrive in shallow brackish water each spring to start their spawning ritual. As such, they are often pursued to shake off winter’s blues for the outdoorsman. Those warmly dressed fisherfolks you see in late March gathered around bridges in Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico counties are most likely trying to catch white perch. Commercial fishermen net them throughout the winter in deeper water and find a ready market.
White perch may live to the ripe old age of ten years. With the species having excellent reproductive success, commercial harvests of a million or more pounds annually have been reported in Maryland. Recreational catch estimates, a good guess at best, total about 40% of the annual market haul.
Populations do fluctuate widely, however, and biologists admit there are serious inaccuracies in monitoring techniques and derived statistics. This raises concern among fishing folk about the welfare of these fish. There is currently no management plan in place for Maryland’s white perch. However, a preliminary population assessment is now being conducted in preparation for formal stock management protocols.
White perch inhabit the Atlantic coast and its estuaries from the Gulf of St. Lawrence through New England to South Carolina. Most every tidal or brackish creek holds schools of these semi-andromadous beauties.
And lovely fish they are. Their back color ranges from deep, dark green through various shades of olive to silver. There are two adjoining dorsal fins joined at the base, unlike their cousin, the striped bass, who have a space between their top fins. The very first vane is a short, sharp spine that will prick the skin of an unwary fisherman if the perch is carelessly handled.
Perch fishers learn to fold down the dorsal fins plus the two ventral fins from front to back when dehooking them. These front bottom fins also contain sharp spines. The mature perch’s flanks are bright silver in color, fading to white from top to bottom. The fish is shaped somewhat like the striped bass but with a more blunt rostral profile. The white perch is obviously smaller and is not striped except when very young.
White perch have a voracious appetite and will eat small fish or young of any species. In some areas, such as the Great Lakes, they are considered invasive pests because they prey on immature walleye pike (Stizatedious vitreum) and other young of more desirable gamefish. Indeed they will thrive in fresh water and have established populations in many inland lakes and ponds.
By the way, the walleye isn’t a pike but a perch, and stripers aren’t true bass, making this whole naming thing very confusing.
White perch have been hybridized with striped bass, but such hybrids offer little commercial advantage. They do not reproduce. The more commonly marketed hybrid crosses the striper with a white bass (M. chrysops). These engineered species (“wipers”) tolerate lower oxygen carrying, higher temperature water, grow faster than either parent but do not reproduce. White perch have, however, cross bred in the wild with white bass to produce larger, fertile hybrids in some parts of the Great Lakes. This too makes fisheries managers quite nervous.
White perch come into their own as gamefish when suitable artificial lures and lightweight tackle are used to target them. Various small spinner baits (Road Runner, rooster tail, beetle spins, etc.) or tiny curly-tail rubber baits hooked on small jigs are quite effective.
In my experience, one of the best lures for white perch is the 1/8 oz. chrome Mini Rattle Trap. Beware, though. These fish love to lurk around rock piles and old pilings, so many lures will hang up. And it is very easy to break light line. However, matching tiny lures with light freshwater tackle, 6 lb. line and fine shock leaders will test the skill of the most consummate angler. The white perch is a worthy adversary of such tackle. And every once in a while a large striped bass will take your tiny offering and make your reel scream!
Every experienced angler has their favorite perching spots. I will not give away the specific location of mine. However, structure is the key to finding them. Submerged rock piles such as old rip rap, sailing vessel ballast fields or submerged pilings will hold fish.
Barnacle-covered docks are favorites as well. Perch love to hold in these dark recesses to ambush prey. If you can find a lighted pier at night, such as a marina or waterfront restaurant, you may have located perching nirvana. The closer you can cast your lure to structure, especially under an old pier, the more successful you will be. Some days a slowly rolled lure will be effective. At other times a more rapidly retrieved artificial works best. Experiment. The perch will tell you when you are right.
Record white perch have been caught that weighed more than 2.5 lbs. and were close to 20 inches in length. However, average fish will be in the 8- to 10-inch range weighing ½ to 1 pound.
And just how do you filet such a small creature? Fishing friends have worked out a simple, effective method. Use an electric carving knife. Start your cut just behind the gill, go deep to the spine but do not cut through it. Turn the blade toward the tail and then run the blade along the spine almost to the tail, cutting the entire rib cage on that side. Do not cut off the filet at this point, however. Lay the filet/rib flap back over the tail, skin attached. Place the knife at the thin end of this flap, and then run the blade under the skin “back” under the ribs and detach the whole chunk. The skin stays with the fish. With a sharp filet knife, cut the ribs from the filet. Do this to the other side. You now have two lovely filets ready for House-Autry dredging and a deep fat bath. Which is where we came in.
Fun to catch, easy to clean, wonderful to eat, white perch are, simply, the best fish in the Bay.